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Africa’s oldest country marks major holidays and everyday events with a bit of ceremony, including food, drinks, friends, and family. Writer Emily Lang explains.
Text by: Emily Lang
Country: Ethiopia

thiopia boasts not only a distinctive culture but also delicious cuisine. I had tasted Ethiopian food in the United States and Canada, and I was overjoyed at the opportunity to try the real thing. A friend and I would be traveling all over the continent of Africa and staying a little over two weeks in Ethiopia with a couple of our friends who were living and working at an international school in the capital, Addis Ababa.

We arrived just in time to catch the end of the fasting season, right before the Christmas celebration. In Ethiopia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th, not December 25th as in many countries, because the country uses its own calendar system rather than the Gregorian one.

After arriving at the airport, we waited five hours for our entry visas and lost luggage. As we left, our friends greeted us and took us to their apartment in the heart of Addis Ababa. We celebrated the end of our long journey—three days total in transit— with a sweet glass of tej, Ethiopian honey wine, served in a ceremonial vessel which I can only describe as an engraved beaker one might use while conducting a science experiment. It felt very odd drinking out of something I presumed had better place in a laboratory, but the delicious tej soon had us unconcerned about the shape of the glass. Highly alcoholic and generally homemade, tej is a drink for every day and for special occasions. The long-awaited opportunity to stretch our legs and shower were cause enough for us to raise a glass.

Ethiopian soil is best suited for legumes, tubers, and a few leafy greens, so these foods make up the diet of most people and are the ingredients in many of the traditional dishes. There are two things that any self-respecting Ethiopian will tell you to try while you are visiting their country, their world-renowned coffee, and their national dish, injera.

Injera is a main component of just about any Ethiopian dish. Consisting of a basic mixture of fermented teff, a non-glutinous ancestral grain and water, this dough is placed onto a mitad, a round Ethiopian griddle equipped with a lid used specifically for making injera. Usually the whole process takes a minimum of three days, if you include the fermentation. Teff is one of Ethiopia’s major crops, and the government has only recently approved the exportation of the crop because of its importance to the country and the diets of its people.

Injera is typically used as the base of any dish. It is a golden, round, and spongy saucer-shaped flatbread that is set atop the round serving trays typically used in both restaurants and homes. On top of this injera base can come a variety of traditional dishes, generally either served in separate piles alongside more rolled-up injera or in dippable side portions, also served with more rolled-up injera.

With the fasting season upon us, we generally ate shiro, chickpea stew, or yetsom beyaynetu, various mixed vegetable curries. This was due to the local custom of not consuming flesh leading up to Christmas in reverence for the sanctity of Christ. This meant no meat, milk, eggs, or any other type of animal product. What’s more, all of the ingredients used in making the foods are locally cultivated. It is not uncommon to see various vegetable vendors’ stands set up along the street, and the local herders even move their livestock into the town to sell. Hundreds of goats run alongside automobiles, and chickens are strapped to the backs of motorcyclists speeding through downtown.

Coffee is the other must-try when visiting Ethiopia. Regional coffee makes up about 60% of Ethiopia’s foreign income through exportation, making it critically vital to the country’s well-being. The Ethiopian brew is incredibly flavorful and holds great cultural and historical significance. Coffee ceremonies are an integral part of Ethiopian life, performed for a purpose but enjoyed for its pleasure.

A traditional ceremony has many steps, each an important part of preparation. Generally a woman of the household will roast the beans by hand over the fire until they are dark brown, then grind them by hand and brew the coffee over the hearth. She will also burn incense alongside the coffee to clarify the environment and ward off evil spirits. These ceremonies can take many hours, and it’s considered impolite to drink fewer than three cups of coffee.

We interviewed a local about the meaning behind the ritual:

Q: When would a coffee ceremony be required?

A: Mostly on holidays, family gatherings, and social events.

Q: Could you walk me through the steps and preparation of the event?

A: A lady who makes and serves the coffee sits in the middle of the tukul (a circular house typical to Ethiopia) and all other people will sit around the house in a circle. When the coffee is ready it will be served with kolo (a roasted grain mix consisting mostly of barley) or popcorn. People who are drinking usually talk about different issues, like social, political, religious, etc.

Q: What is the cultural importance of the ceremony?

A: The ceremony is a means for the community to come together and talk. It helps the community and share ideas and information on different issues.

Q: Is there a historical significance behind it?

A: We don’t exactly know the time that the coffee ceremony became popular, but our kings and queens, community leaders, and elders used it for a very long time. A long time ago, it was considered a very good time to share information within the community very quickly. For example, during the Ethiopian-Italian War, Ethiopians used coffee ceremonies to share information and support for the patriots. They also were a good opportunity to discuss how to get rid of the Italians.

Nowadays, coffee ceremonies are especially common when inviting a visitor into your home. It is done in homage to hospitality and to the newcomer, making them feel welcome and important within the group. It signals friendship and respect among individuals, who can exchange important information which may be crucial for life in many small villages. It offers a holy place for members of the community to hold fellowship with one another, and it is one of the most important social events within Ethiopian culture. Coffee ceremonies can be performed up to three times a day.

When we went to Ethiopia, I don’t think that either my friend or I had any true idea as to what we would encounter. Ethiopia is a land of marvels to be explored and has managed to hold onto its rich roots of cultural history in spite of the modern-day advances. If you ever have the opportunity, I urge you to take the plunge into this wonderful world. You may just be surprised at the delights that you might find.

FACT BOX

Lucy, one of the world’s oldest and most complete hominid skeletons was found (and continues to reside) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Her bones are dated as 3.2 million years old.

The Gregorian Calendar began to be used in 1752. In contrast, the Ethiopic calendar is much more heavily based upon solar movements as well as planetary ones and was modified by missionaries who later arrived in Ethiopia.

Africa is made up of 54 countries and is the second largest continent.

As the oldest country in Africa, Ethiopia has a hearty past and, when asked, many Ethiopians are quite proud of their right to say that their country has never been governed by any outside forces (with the exception of Italy’s 5 year occupation, not colonization).




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Ethiopia, where eating is a celebration


Ethiopia, the oldest country in Africa, is known for its distinctive culture and delicious cuisine. I was very excited to travel there to visit some friends who work in Addis Ababa. This was an opportunity for me to try real Ethiopian food!

Our friends received us with a sweet glass of tej, a ceremonial Ethiopian honey wine served in a vessel that looks like a beaker. Tej is a delicious, highly alcoholic and generally homemade drink that can be served every day or for special occasions.

We arrived at the end of the fasting season, right before the Christmas celebration. In the days leading up to Christmas, Ethiopians don’t eat meat, milk, eggs, or any other type of animal products, so we mostly ate vegetarian dishes such as shiro, chickpea stew, and yetsom beyaynetu, various mixed vegetable curries.

Ethiopian soil is best suited for legumes, tubers, and a few leafy greens, so these foods make up the diet of most people and are the ingredients in many of the traditional dishes. There are two things that you must try while you are visiting Ethiopia, their world-renowned coffee, and their national dish, injera.

Injera is a main component of most Ethiopian dishes. It is a basic mixture of fermented teff, a non-glutinous ancestral grain and water. It is a golden, round, and spongy saucer-shaped flatbread that is served as an accompaniment to most dishes.

Coffee is the other must-try when visiting Ethiopia. Regional coffee makes up about 60% of Ethiopia’s foreign income through exportation. The Ethiopian brew is incredibly flavorful and has great cultural and historical significance. Coffee ceremonies are an integral part of Ethiopian life, performed for a purpose but enjoyed for its pleasure!


 

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Ethiopia, where eating is a celebration

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Grammar in Use

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Elementary: Countable and Uncountable Nouns

Intermediate: Principal Vs. Principle

Vocabulary

Injeera Conection

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